Sharing Transformative Histories is Everybody’s Responsibility!
What’s a Weeksville?
Established in 1838, Weeksville became the second largest known independent African American community in pre-Civil War America, the only such community whose residents were distinctive for their urban rather than rural occupations, and the only one that merged into a neighborhood of a major American city after the Civil War. Therefore, Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) is a nationally significant American historic site and a documented example of an intentional, independent African American community.
Amazed and Appalled!
I first arrived to WHC as a candidate for the position of Executive Director on a wet and chilly February evening in 2014. I had no idea that my ancestral memory was about to be awakened by a soul-stirring experience with the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses, the sole remaining domestic structures of the historic Weeksville Community.
I was eloquently introduced to the Weeksville story through a guided tour. “These houses,” the tour educator said, “along with their recovery by the tenacious activism of a broad-based coalition of community members, form the backdrop for remembering and telling and exploring the many vital lives that resided here and the accomplishments of the community at large.”
I was amazed… and ultimately… appalled. How was it that I had never studied this chapter in American History before? How was it that the social, political, and cultural history of the residents of historic Weeksville was not a part of my elementary or secondary or college education? Who was responsible for this critical omission in the mis-education of Tia? And more immediately, how would I (if selected to lead this glorious institution) fulfill my responsibility to expand the Weeksville experience in new and dynamic ways for not only the residents of Crown Heights, but also a national community?
Enter… Corporate Social Responsibility
I did become the new Executive Director of Weeksville Heritage Center and with great relief, discovered that my predecessor, Pam Green, had already paved the way for me to address the formidable responsibility I had inherited. Prior to my arrival, Weeksville Heritage Center responded to an RFP from the Duetsche Bank Americas Foundation. The intention of this grant program was to provide a platform to “utilize new technologies to deepen involvement with underserved communities” and “further anchor cultural institutions as creative technology and artistic hubs”. This support had the potential to “increase the visibility of low and moderate- income neighborhoods as cultural destinations,” thus potentially bringing employment, entrepreneurial opportunities and revitalization to these communities.
WHC is located in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which is dominated by an African American (47%) and Hispanic (43%) population base. With an average annual gross income of less than $25,000 per year, the majority of these families receive public assistance benefits. Despite the high prevalence of poverty, there is tremendous energy in the community to adopt and use new technology in everyday life.
Thankfully, WHC was awarded an Arts and Enterprise grant by the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. With this grant we were able to move to the next level of fulfilling our responsibility as a culture-bearing institution. The use of emerging technology and its interactive and multi-sensory capabilities is essential to our ability to inspire our core audiences, embrace new visitors from the community and beyond, and showcase the transformative history and vibrant present surrounding the community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The enhanced historic house tour app, in its final iteration, will launch May 2015 and enable visitors to explore many digital objects and relevant items that are not on current display. This app will inspire a creative and collaborative learning environment that encourages visitors to take ownership of their experience. The virtual neighborhood tour will help create a fuller exploratory space where visitors can more deeply understand the historic institutions and residents of Weeksville. It will also allow visitors to more viscerally experience what it may have been like to live in this community where self-determination, civic pride, activism and providing sanctuary were everybody’s responsibility.